How Fire Departments Stopped Worrying and Embraced Safer Street Design

San Francisco's new Vision Zero fire truck looks much like previous models, but it is 10 inches shorter and has a much narrower turning radius. Photo: Roger Rudick
San Francisco's new Vision Zero fire truck looks much like previous models, but it is 10 inches shorter and has a much narrower turning radius. Photo: Roger Rudick

If you’ve ever made the case for a traffic calming project in your city, odds are you’ve butted heads with your local fire department.

Fire officials often insist on wide clearance to operate their large vehicles, which can be at odds with the principles of safe street design. When cities want to narrow car lanes or add bike lanes to make streets safer for walking and biking, fire departments often water down or even stop the plans before they can get started. Even though traffic fatalities outnumber fire deaths in the U.S. by more than 10 to 1, fire officials tend to get the final word.

Other times fire safety is just a pretext to avoid implementing street redesigns that elected officials see as a political liability. That’s the story in Baltimore, where the city has delayed work on major bikeways. Residents upset about the reduction in on-street parking complained first, then the city cited clearance for fire trucks as the reason for backing off the project.

Not every city is as change-averse as Baltimore, however. And in some places, the fire departments are active partners in street redesign initiatives.

One of those cities is Portland, where the Fire Department participates in the street design process led by the city’s Bureau of Transportation.

As Portland has built out bike lanes, narrowed car lanes, and added pedestrian safety measures, the fears about slower response times did not materialize, says Fire Chief Mike Myers.

“There has been no reduction in response times by working with urban planners and transportation leaders to build out Portland,” Myers said on a recent webinar hosted by the National Association of City Transportation Officials.

It also helps to have fire response vehicles that fit well on narrower streets conducive to walking and biking. Compared to European cities, American fire departments use bigger vehicles with wider turning radii.

A smaller European fire truck (top) and an oversized American one (bottom). Photos:
A smaller European fire truck (top) and an oversized American one (bottom). Photos:

It doesn’t have to be that way, said Jonah Chiarenza and Alex Epstein, analysts at U.S. DOT’s Volpe Center. The fire trucks in use in Europe are more maneuverable without sacrificing the capacity to carry water or the height of their ladders.

So far, few American cities have opted for these smaller fire vehicles, but San Francisco is an exception. The city recently purchased eight smaller “Vision Zero” engines made by Ferrara Fire Apparatus that can execute sharper turns than typical American fire trucks.

Even if cities don’t purchase new trucks, they should still aim to design streets for safe movement, not for the ease of large vehicles, Epstein and Chiarenza said. For instance, intersections can have shorter crossing distances and tighter corners while remaining negotiable for fire trucks, as long as the stop bars are set far enough back to allow trucks to complete turns.

Cities can still make street safety interventions like these bulb outs even if they are using large fire engines, say Volpe researchers.
Cities can still make street safety interventions like these bulb outs even if they use large fire engines.

34 thoughts on How Fire Departments Stopped Worrying and Embraced Safer Street Design

  1. It’s funny how fire departments are so insistent about the importance of not wasting a single second in a fire response time, and yet if you take a walk around the vicinity of any fire house in the city you’ll see a plethora of vehicles with FDNY placards blocking fire hydrants as if they didn’t exist.

  2. In that illustration of the intersection, if the fire truck starts that turn from the left side, the stop bar wouldn’t even need to be that far back. Theoretically, the sirens would alert oncoming drivers to not proceed into the intersection.

  3. This article misses many of the important facts surrounding San Francisco and it’s new equipment. Let’s begin with the ladder trucks. The “oversized American” truck depicted is used mainly in cities that have wide streets and flat terrain. SF has neither, San Francisco uses Tiller Trucks that are capable of making much tighter turns than the one shown.

    However, it’s nice that there was a change-up when it comes to the diagram of traffic… While it doesn’t depict the reality of the “oversized American” truck in the picture above it, it does provide a little bit of significance to San Francisco, except that there is no Tiller turning the rear wheels of the trailer. Nor is there a line of pedestrians “hanging-ten” on the curb refusing to give up even an inch, or a bicycle trying to pass on the right which is a common hazard, as the truck goes around the corner. And the cars don’t stop to give room, whoever suggested that has never been to San Francisco. And there’s no where for them to go to get out of the way because there’s an incredibly small intersection with no space for them to pull into.

    Oh, and the truck from Europe. What does it carry? Where are the 12 other ladders, including the 50-foot extension ladder (28 feet long when unextended) that is used when the aerial ladder can’t go up? Where are the “jaws-of-life” and all the other tools of the trade that get used on a regular basis? Certainly not on that truck. Advocates for having more small vehicles to carry the rest of the gear have never encountered the concept of fleet maintenance and purchasing in a bureaucracy as unbelievably cheap as San Francisco (even though SF has an $11-billion budget, it can’t shake loose enough money to modernize the majority of it’s fleet.- just saying.)

    And let’s talk about when the aerial can’t go up. In San Francisco it’s usually because the overhead power lines for cable, phone, electricity and the municipal railway are preventing it. That and the trees. But what’s really at play is that the lobby to make streets smaller by adjusting the areas for bicycling wants parking protected bike lanes in places where that will prevent fire department access to taller buildings by pushing the ladder trucks out under the overhead wires. Simply stated, in the cases where the San Francisco Fire Department has stopped this rearrangement of the traffic lanes, it is because the changes will prevent the fire department from having aerial access to the adjacent buildings. There isn’t a “smaller truck” in the world that will overcome those issues.

    Before ya’ll go off half-cocked, consider that the SFFD rubber-stamps around 75% of these projects, slows most of the rest for review and tries to halt only a hand-full in the name of public safety access. Seriously, they drive the trucks over there and demonstrate to the bicycle lobby why the SFFD doesn’t think it’s a good idea. But of course, these are the ones that everyone complains about the most. Even if it is only one or two projects out of hundreds.

    And those little engines that everyone pats themselves on the back about? They’re a nice package that get’s the job done. Maybe a little bit tight in some of the cabinets but overall a huge success to the Fire Department’s team that created the specifications.

    Feel free to discuss. Come to San Francisco any time to see it in person.

  4. On the aerials, aren’t fire departments already experimenting with flying platforms, which basically resemble scaled up drones, to replace the ladders? Seems like a better idea. As buildings get taller everywhere, the percentage of floors an aerial can reach is shrinking. A flying platform on the other hand can get people out 100 stories up.

    Once you eliminate the need for the ladder, the trucks can get a lot smaller and still carry what they need.

    A good concurrent approach is changes in building codes to make buildings fire-proof. Concrete can’t burn. Couple that with prohibitions on flammable flooring like carpets and you go a long way from needing to rescue people from fires in the first place. Granted, you’ll still have old wooden structures but over time they’ll all be replaced by concrete.

  5. And practically speaking asshole drivers will hear the siren and try to beat the fire truck to the intersection. For similar reasons people no longer bother signaling before changing lanes. When you signal, people who don’t want to end up behind you will just zoom into the space you intended to move into.

  6. Note on Baltimore: A major section has just been redesigned as a result of the fire department controversy (see link), and it ended up being even better than the previous design (more protection, more connections). I’m not entirely sure how to interpret this development — the Fire department seems to have been an excuse for delays, but the end result is better — but I do think that if you’re going to talk about Baltimore, it’s helpful to give the full picture of what’s happening there.

  7. They use them in Tulsa, OK and it’s usually for wide streets in single family residential neighborhoods. They seem to work for reducing speeds and traffic. They suck for riding a bike or using a stroller and they typically create extra signage.

  8. The majority of their responses are not for fires, but paramedic emergencies, frequently from traffic collisions caused by excessive speeds due to street designs they insisted on to ensure their speedy response times. The majority are for medical emergencies due to sedentary lifestyles (and junk food) enforced by these same dangerous streets.

  9. I’m not sure how Muni lines and protected bike lines are a problem given that the lines can be moved to provide same alignment as before.

    Also, maybe we should raise the electric rates just a bit too speed up the undergrounding of power and other lines.

  10. Ambulances are used for paramedic responses. Ambulances are much smaller than fire trucks.

    Are fire trucks really used for paramedic responses?

  11. In the NYC borough of Staten Island there are both steep hills and windy, narrow streets everywhere, but as the diagram shows, they put the car stops quite far back from some intersections. People actually obey the back-set stops because, in addition to full-sized fire trucks, full-sized city buses also use the streets regularly so you will quickly cause a problem if you stop at the natural intersection. The less-frequent, wide suburban-style street is more and more being seen for the danger it poses. Some horrific crashes in 25 mph zone, but where the wide, flat street makes it feel like it is safe to go twice that speed.

  12. Yes, quite often, in fact. Partly because fire trucks are better at medical response than ambulances are at putting out fires (so having more fire trucks in the fleet means more response flexibility), and partly because motorists are more likely to make way for fire trucks than for ambulances.

  13. In Lexington they roll an Engine company and an EC unit to all medical calls. Every firefighter is an EMT and there are twice as many Engine companies as EC units. EMTs stabilize and EC units transport, if necessary.

  14. One way to keep cars back from the intersection is what they do in Munich. There are essentially no right turns allowed on red light. Then the poles which hold the traffic lights are on the near side of the intersection. This makes it so you have to stop before the crosswalks and the crossing bike lanes before the intersection or you can’t see the traffic light.

  15. Imagine a two way street arranged like this: along the curb is a parking lane, next to the parking lane is a bike lane, and next to the bike lane is a traffic lane with 2 parallel wires at about 21 feet in height over it. The wires carry 600 volts of Direct Current (deadly in an instant.). The opposite direction of travel is arranged the same… Currently, a fire department truck company can slide over to the bike lane, and deploy the aerial without being under the overhead wires (since the wires are over the traffic lane and the truck is no longer in the traffic lane.) The aerial ladder can reach to top of any 7 story building (or smaller) in San Francisco, which is the majority of not financial district structures.

    Now, here is the protected bike lane problem spelled out for you: The street has been repainted and currently the bike lane is along the curb. The cars are then parked in a line between the traffic lane and the bike lane, and then the traffic lane is still out in the middle of the street, where it has always been- still with the 600 volts of DC in the wires directly above it. When the truck shows up for a fire, it is stuck in the traffic lane because there is a line of parked cars preventing it from moving out from under the wires. The truck cannot deploy the aerial and thus the firefighters cannot access the roof of the building, make rescues from windows on the upper floors, or any number of other, regularly done operations that require an aerial ladder.

    In new high rises, this isn’t a problem. The high rises are all built to have internal access and escape routes.

    In older buildings, particularly the ones that surround the two locations where the Fire Department stopped the protected bike lane projects, do not.

    It’s not a terribly difficult concept to understand, and it make even more sense when you see it in person. Unfortunately though, there is a small group of vocal special-interests in San Francisco that simply don’t care about the consequences for other people, so long as they get what they want.

    … and if we put the overhead muni wires underground, how will the electric buses and trolleys access them? The electric buses and trolleys are the OG of zero emission vehicles. SF has been using them for more than 100 years.

  16. Flying platforms? Maybe in 100 years.

    Building codes already require that new construction be built with all kinds of great fire-safety features. Flying platforms are already obsolete for new high-rise buildings. But we’re not talking about those. The bulk of SF construction happened in the early decades of the 20th century. Fire safety wasn’t big on everyone’s minds back then (I don’t know why, SF had burnt to the ground 6 times by the 1906 earthquake, when it burnt down again.)

    Everything is moving forward at a snails pace. That’s how government and society work. You can’t disrupt the economy of existing construction. It’s already there and millions of dollars cheaper to take the necessary measures to make as safe as you can rather than tear it down or retro-fit it. (remodels have to meet current code.) That includes ensuring access for fire department equipment and personnel.

  17. >Are fire trucks really used for paramedic responses?

    Yes, often. Around here, the fire truck is pretty much always the very first responder.

  18. The interesting thing about implementing traffic calming and complete streets/vision zero elements that are designed to slow and calm traffic is that a complaint you’ll often hear is that this is going to ‘slow down first responders’.

    But if you look at actual research and guidelines for the drivers of ambulances, EMS, fire engines, and the like (many sources listed below) is that their findings and recommendations for emergency vehicle drivers sound exactly like the recommendations we make for general traffic safety: slow down, leave enough room when following, signal turns, proceed carefully through intersections, don’t drive when overtired, don’t multitask (ie no cell phones, radios, etc while driving), buckle up both drivers and patients, and all the rest.

    Ambulances, for example, have EIGHT TIMES the crash rate of cars/light trucks. EMS worker on-the-job fatality rate is 2X the national average and transportation crashes are responsible a full 75% of the deaths. At the same time, 75% of EMS-vehicle-related fatalities are bystanders.

    In short, ambulance, fire, and police operating running hot are a positive danger both to themselves and the community at large. We should be working to slow them down, not speed them up–for the exact same reasons we work to slow down all automobile traffic in populated areas, but even more so due to their enhanced danger.

    The reduction in crashes and injuries that departments realize when they, for example, implement driver monitoring systems that track and report overspeed (typically recommendation is drivers should never exceed 10 mph over the posted speed limit), running with lights/siren when not actually required or necessary, and other driver safety violations, has been pretty dramatic.

    Point being that collision injuries and fatalities of drivers, crew, and bystanders and a serious occupational hazard of emergency vehicle operators. Communities ought to be banding together to require responsible driving of emergency vehicles, rather than encouraging them to continue to operate too fast for conditions. Responsible departments and leaders already monitor driver behavior and limit speed and other driver behavior. When they do so, they see huge improvements in safety.

    Ambulance, fire, police, and other emergency vehicle drivers and crews stand to gain as much or more from the type of traffic calming and complete streets measures as do ordinary citizens.

    A bunch of sources and research listed below–mainly remarkable for the uniformity of their conclusions. Emergency vehicles need to be slowed down and driven more responsibly, not sped up:

  19. Protected bike lanes are large enough for fire trucks. If I Google “fire truck in bike lane” it’s the first image that comes up. And it’s a large american fire truck. Those small European ones would fit even better.

    How will trolleys in SF access an underground power source? Seriously? You mean like the one that you mentioned that they’ve been using for 100 years? Yes, you can bury a cable.

  20. Also because a medical call is reimbursable by public and private health insurance, a fire is not.

  21. When I was in Gainesville, Florida, the fire department bought trucks/pumpers that vastly overpowered the water mains on the UF campus and would have blown them out. Geez.

  22. Notice that the smaller European crane truck is built on an off-the-shelf medium duty cab-and-chassis of the sort already heavily used as box trucks in even the tightest and most walkable of cities. This isn’t rocket science.

  23. While you describe common street behaviors, I have never seen a San Francisco pedestrian hanging ten into an oncoming firetruck, nor a San Francisco bicyclist passing a firetrucks on the right. Both groups rush to accommodate a firetruck. Not true of motorists, because there’s always one or two jockeying to make sure that they’re not delayed.

  24. Feel free to sign up for a ride-along with the fire department.

    The pedestrians guard the curb like the western front. They won’t even step back when faced with the side of a ladder truck at 6 inches. The bicycles? Wow. Try to make a right turn in a ladder truck on Market, Valencia, Folsom or any other street with a high volume of bicycles. It’s a never ending parade of cyclists who fail to notice a turn signal and a turning truck. They’ll ride right down between it and the curb until they’re forced to get off and pull their bike onto the sidewalk because there’s no space. Then they give the bird and an indignant, self-righteous stare like the ladder truck has the gall to be on their street.

    Neither groups make much effort to accommodate the fire department in any way. They walk and ride right through closed streets. I’ve been hit by two bicyclists while at active fire scenes. Pedestrians will duck under yellow caution tape and walk right past a building on fire, stepping over the hose lines that go in the front door.

    It’s the same story when it comes to general public safety issues like stopping the protected bike lanes on Golden Gate and Upper Market. “How dare they!” is the response, with no general consideration that there may be any other reason than to inconvenience them.

    Entitlement runs deep in the City folk. Personal inconvenience in the name of someone else’s safety, interest, or care is practically nonexistent. I was tending to a person who crashed one of those rental scooters the other day and people regularly walked up to grab the downed scooter, even though it was still on it’s side next to the fallen rider and clearly in the middle of an emergency scene.


  25. In the Region of Waterloo, Ontario, absolutely. There are paramedics at the fire station sitting there waiting for a call. Ambulances are almost ALWAYS on a call. Fire trucks almost always show up first to a 911 call. They are also strategically located, where the ambulance is centrally located and often at the hospital.

  26. I live in Baltimore. Your article is a biased distortion on cycle tracks vs fire safety

  27. Well I do hope that in a fire situation , street and traffic situations are as optimal as you state is necessary

  28. Yes – member of a fire protection district in suburban Chicago here. Very common to send both ambulance & an engine. The amount of interventions done by paramedics requires the extra personnel.

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